Big adventure, big film, big screening at the Wheeler Opera House |

Big adventure, big film, big screening at the Wheeler Opera House

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Aspen filmmaker Bob Rafelson, right, on the set of the 1990 movie "Mountains of the Moon," with actor Patrick Bergin. The film shows Thursday in the Wheeler Opera House's Farewell to Film series. Courtesy of Bob Rafelson

Bob Rafelson, a filmmaker who moved to Aspen in 1963, hasn’t specialized in epic-scale movies. His work, including 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” and 1972’s “The King of Marvin Gardens,” both of which starred Jack Nicholson, were close-in portrayals of outsider characters and intimate examinations of the less-exposed corners of America — the Pacific Northwest, Atlantic City, N.J. — in which they lived.

“Mountains of the Moon,” the 1990 film Rafelson directed and co-wrote, broke those molds. A tale of the mid-19th-century British explorers who searched for the source of the Nile River, “Mountains of the Moon” was shot in 10 countries, used British actors and employed period costumes and sets. And there was the scale of the project: The film aims to capture the landscape and the characters, their ambitions and the sweep of time, in epic style. Rafelson had severe doubts about his ability to make the film.

“I had made movies about people in the backwaters of the U.S. and began to believe that’s what I was born to do. I told myself, ‘You don’t know how to do this. You’ve never shot English people,’” Rafelson, 80, said. He wasn’t the only one with doubts. Associates in the film business told him, “This is big. You’re not used to big.”

“Mountains of the Moon” gets appropriately grand treatment Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House. As part of the Wheeler’s “Farewell to Film” series, the movie will be screened from a 70mm print, the only such print that was made. Jon Busch, who books the Wheeler’s film series and also serves as the projectionist — a job he has been doing for 50 years — says the 70mm format makes a significantly sharper picture than 35mm film.

It is enough of an occasion that Rafelson not only will engage in a post-screening conversation but will watch the film as well, breaking his custom of not revisiting his work. He figures that this is the last time he will be able to see “Mountains of the Moon” on a big screen, and it will be one of the last times anyone will see an actual film shown at the Wheeler. When the theater undergoes a renovation in the fall, the film projector will be replaced with a digital system. The film era in Aspen will end with the ultimate epic-scale movie, “Lawrence of Arabia,” June 3 through 6.

“Digital is a slightly different tonality. I prefer the old. And so does Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese,” Rafelson said. “But what are we going to do?”

When Rafelson arrived in London to start making “Mountains of the Moon,” he was still in need of a cinematographer. Then Roger Deakins appeared, with an impeccable resume. Deakins, who had made visually ambitious films including “1984” (and would go on to make “The Shawshank Redemption,” “A Beautiful Mind” and most of the Coen brothers’ movies), had just returned from Africa. Rafelson and Deakins bonded over the fact that they had both been fired by the same woman. That was enough to build a foundation of trust. Rafelson didn’t have time to do the meticulous oversight of shooting that he had done on previous films; “Mountains of the Moon” was shot in just 15 weeks.

“So I surrendered the camera to Roger,” Rafelson said. “I had my hands full — a cast of 100 people, mostly amateurs, dressed in 19th-century African wardrobe. Roger and I, we just went on trust. I’d say, ‘Here’s what I want; you shoot it.’” Deakins’ cinematography earned Rafelson’s admiration; Rafelson calls Deakins the best cameraman there is.

Rafelson also notes that “Mountains of the Moon” is the most ignored of his films; there is not even a distributor for the DVD. But while the public ignored it, many critics raved. The late Roger Ebert called it “completely absorbing,” noting that virtually every aspect of the film — the complex relationship between the explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, the themes of pride and stubbornness, the authenticity of the settings — was first-rate.

Matching the epic quality of the visuals is the characters themselves, especially Burton. A prolific translator, particularly of erotic texts like the Kama Sutra, and a man who spoke 26 languages, Burton has been Rafelson’s idol since Rafelson was a teenager. Rafelson particularly admired Burton’s sense for adventure and the way he went about his journeys.

“He believed exploration was to learn, not to dominate, not to colonize but to bring back the culture,” he said. “He learned, and he shared.

“The accounts of these explorers became performances in the theater, were in newspapers and books. People were dying to find out what lie beyond the shore, to see what was beyond the horizon.”